Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Middle East conflict (4)

The idea that Britain, the Commonwealth and the USA get a mention in Ezekiel 38 is very popular with some Christadelphians (following John Thomas), so while on the subject of Ezekiel 38 I though I'd take a look at this one.

The argument goes that "the merchants of Tarshish and all their young lions" (v. 13) is a reference to Britain (Tarshish) and the English-speaking world ("the young lions"). The argument relies fairly heavily on some war-time posters from World War I which depicted Britain and the Empire as a lion with its cubs, and a fairly spurious interpretation of the word "Britanica" as "land of tin" (and Tarshish was a source of tin, according to Ezekiel 27:12). Some interpreters have Tarshish in Spain (Tartessus) or in Turkey (Tarsus).

According to 1 Kings 10:21 and 2 Chron 9:21 Solomon had “a fleet of trading ships [KJV “a navy of Tharshish” Heb. Tarshish ships] at sea along with the ships of Hiram. Once every three years it returned, carrying gold, silver and ivory, and apes and baboons [NIV] / peacocks [KJV].” The interesting thing is that “ivory, apes and baboons/peacocks” don’t come from Britain, or Spain, but Africa and India. In fact, according to Gesenius, the word “ivory” [Heb. shenhabbiym] literally means “the tooth [shen] of an elephant [habbiiym]”, but the word habbyim comes from the Sanskrit word ibha, not from a Hebrew root (the usual Hebrew word for “elephant” is piyl), so we should definitely be looking at India as the source of the ivory. There is some evidence that the Phoenician traders circumnavigated Africa and that ships from Tyre may have made it as far as India.

This would also explain why Solomon, and later Jehoshaphat, built ships at Ezion Geber (1 Kings 9:26; 22:48). “King Solomon also built ships at Ezion Geber, which is near Elath in Edom, on the shore of the Red Sea. And Hiram sent his men—sailors who knew the sea—to serve in the fleet with Solomon's men.” 2 Chron 20:36 says that these ships were built “to go to Tarshish”. The route to India would have been considerably shorter from Ezion Geber (modern Eilat at the tip of the Red Sea) than from Tyre.

Tarshish is also linked in the Bible with Ophir (e.g. 1 Kings 22:48). The Greek translators of the Bible rendered the Hebrew word Ophir with the Coptic word Sophir, meaning India, although the exact identification of Ophir has not yet been proven. Josephus also identified Ophir as India.

It seems to me from Ezekiel 38:13 that the grouping “Sheba and Dedan and the merchants of Tarshish” suggests they are in the same area. If Sheba and Dedan are on the southern end of the Arabian peninsula (Sheba near Yemen and Dedan near Oman) then they would be in the vicinity of merchant ships sailing from Ezion Geber. The most likely identification for “Tarshish” would be somewhere near the Arabian peninsula, or even India, but definitely not Britain.

Incidentally, “merchants of Tarshish" does not mean the merchants were inhabitants of Tarshish. In the same way that “ships of Tarshish” described a kind of long-distance, sea-going, merchant vessel, so “merchants of Tarshish” probably described the kind of traders who would be interested in “a plunder and a booty” (Ezek 38:13). We don’t need to identify where Tarshish is, as the nation itself is not necessarily part of the confederacy, but, if it were, then it would be closer to the Arabian peninsula (Sheba and Dedan) than to Britain.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Middle East conflict (3)

I've been asked for some clarification about the sequence of battles in the 'end times', particularly whether Zechariah 14 and Ezekiel 38 are the same conflict.

There are several important differences between the descriptions of the invasions in Zechariah 14/Joel 3/Ezekiel 35/Psalm 83 and Ezekiel 38-39.

  • Gog invades when the people are dwelling safely, at peace, without walls or gates. The description of Israel’s condition in Ezekiel 38: 8-11 is remarkably similar to these prophecies of Messiah's reign:
    • "Every man will sit under his own vine
      and under his own fig tree,
      and no one will make them afraid,
      for the LORD Almighty has spoken." (Micah 4:4)
    • "In his days Judah will be saved
      and Israel will live in safety.
      This is the name by which he will be called:
      The LORD Our Righteousness." (Jeremiah 23:6)
    • "I will surely gather them from all the lands where I banish them in my furious anger and great wrath; I will bring them back to this place and let them live in safety." (Jeremiah 32:37)
    • "I will make a covenant of peace with them and rid the land of wild beasts so that they may live in the desert and sleep in the forests in safety." (Ezekiel 34:25)
This suggests that Gog invades after Jesus has commenced his reign.
  • Zechariah 14 says the city is taken and the people go into captivity. Gog in Ezekiel 38 is defeated, but there is no mention of even an initial victory of any type, or a single drop of Jewish blood being shed.
  • Zechariah 14 says the Lord will come to the Mount of Olives to deliver Israel from the invader. Ezekiel 38 says nothing about Israel being delivered. It seems that the invader is destroyed almost before he begins.
I don’t think there is anything in Scripture to suggest that the Messiah reigns unopposed and in peace from the commencement of His kingdom. In fact Psalm 2:2 suggests the opposite. ("The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One.")

The way I envisage this being worked out is something like this:
  1. Israel is invaded by a confederacy of her neighbours (Psalm 83). Jerusalem is taken (Zechariah 14:2 and Ezekiel 36:2).
  2. Jesus will return to deliver Israel and Jerusalem from their captivity at the hands of this invading force made up of her neighbours (Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinians).
  3. The invader is defeated in Jerusalem (Joel 3 gives further details).
  4. Jesus then commences His reign in Jerusalem.
  5. Some time later, after Israel has begun to enjoy peace and safety, other Islamic nations (from “the four corners of the earth”) come against the Land and against the Lord. They are summarily defeated.
  6. I have no idea how long it will be between the two conflicts. It’s possible that the western (‘Christian’) nations will be amongst the first to acknowledge the King in Jerusalem as the true Messiah. If so, they will give Him their allegiance and their tributes. Israel will become a wealthy nation, and the nations who have refused to accept Jesus’ sovereignty will come against the Land “to take plunder and to take a booty”.

Monday, August 14, 2006

The Middle East conflict (2)

I just want to clarify something from my earlier post, regarding Ezekiel 38. It seems that John picked up from Ezekiel that the Gog/Magog confederacy comes from the “four corners of the earth” (Rev 20:8). That’s another way of saying (a) they come from all points of the compass and (b) they are distant from Israel.

These are the directions they come from (relative to Israel):

Magog = north
Meshech & Tubal = north
Gomer = north
Togarmah “of the uttermost parts of the north”
Persia = east
Ethiopia = south
Libya = west
Sheba & Dedan = south
Tarshish = south

Hence, “from the four corners of the earth”.

None of these nations are neighbours of Israel, which I believe is significant. The nations occupying these territories today are all Islamic, which I believe is also significant.

A positive view of hell

I have been thinking for some time that the Christadelphian understanding of hell (which is shared with several other denominations as well as individuals in mainstream denominations which might 'officially' hold the traditional view) is more in keeping with a Grace-based understanding of the Gospel than the traditional view.

One of the cornerstones of the Gospel is "God is love" and "God so loved that He gave ... that we should not perish". Another cornerstone is that God is gracious and it is His pleasure to give us the Kingdom.

The 'annihilationist' view of hell (i.e the wicked perish and cease to exist) together with the 'conditional immortality' view (i.e. that immortality is God's gift and the soul is not inherently immortal) offer an understanding of life-after-death which is consistent with these foundations of Christianity (i.e. God's love and graciousness).

In my view, the understanding of resurrection and life-after-death which is held by Adventists, some of the Church of God groups, Christadelphians and others is not only a better interpretation of Scripture than the traditional views, but if presented well would also be more appealing to the large number of people who have trouble reconciling the idea of a loving God with eternal torments.

Unfortunately, Christadelphians often present this understanding of life-after-death in a negative way.
  • "Immortality of the soul is unscriptural".
  • "Christendom is astray from the Bible".
  • "The soul that sins will die".
Lectures, booklets and the general presentation of the subject are sometimes slanted more to criticising other denominations and less towards offering hope. Presented negatively (attacking a "doctrine to be rejected") the Christadelphian understanding has the majority perishing without hope, and only an elite (who have correctly understood this doctrine, and others) being saved from extinction.
But taught positively, the same doctrine emphasises a loving God Who wants everyone to be saved, Who makes it easy for us to be saved, Who empowers and enables us to do what it takes to be saved, and Who demonstrated His commitment to our salvation through His Son.

The same doctrine can be taught either as "your loved ones aren't in heaven" (sad) or "no one is being tortured in hell" (great news!). It can be taught either as "God dislikes the world so much that only a handful of humanity will be deemed worth saving" or as "God loves the world so much that He will do anything so you can share eternity with Him".

Same doctrine. Different packaging. One is grace-less, the other grace-based.

But when a beautiful doctrine which offers hope for the world is taught by grace-killers, you end up with something unappealing and discouraging and with a perverted view of God.

Let's rescue the doctrine of the resurrection and teach it positively and well.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

The Middle East conflict

The recent conflict between Israel and Lebanon has attracted a great deal of attention, as expected, from Bible readers who are interested in prophecy. I recently shared some thoughts about Psalm 83 and Ezekiel 38 with some friends, and I thought I'd post them here as well for a wider audience.

I was born at about the time of the ‘56 Suez Crisis (so I don't remember it!), but I do recall very vividly the 6 day war in 1967. As part of a Christadelphian family I remember hearing throughout the war that Jesus was about to return any day (and I wondered at the time why I still had to go to school if the Kingdom was about to begin!)

I also remember that during the Yom Kippur war in 1973 there was a great deal of excitement again, and an expectation that the end might be near, although the excitement was less intense than in 1967.

It’s interesting to see in all these conflicts how the 10 nations of Psalm 83 are lining up for an invasion of Israel, as well as the ‘outer circle’ of Ezekiel 38 getting ready for the next wave of attack. I believe that every conflict in the middle east has been significant as the nations are positioning themselves ready for Armageddon.

By “the 10 nations in Psalm 83” I mean the 10 tribes/nations which are listed in the Psalm, and not 10 corresponding modern nations. I believe a mistake made by some interpreters of prophecy (including many Christadelphians) is to look for the modern descendants of peoples mentioned in prophecy, rather than trying to identify the land they occupied. So, for example, some Christadelphians follow John Thomas’s error in identifying “Gomer” in Ezekiel 38 as France, on the reasoning that the descendants of Gomer, the Gauls, migrated westwards and settled in France, or “Magog” as Germany because the decendants of Magog, the Scythians, later settled along the banks of the Danube (or even more unlikely is his identification of ‘Tarshish’ as Britain). In my opinion, prophecy should be interpreted by looking at the territory the named tribe or nation occupied at the time the prophecy was given, and to identify the modern nation occupying the same territory.

By following this hermeneutic we don’t need to find modern-day descendants of the Amalekites, for example – we need to identify who occupies the territory which the Amalekites occupied at the time the Psalm was written. By the same rule, we won’t find any Philistines living anywhere today, but we do find a hybridised group of Egyptians/Syrians/Jordanians living in the territory of Philistia and calling themselves by the latinised/anglised name for Philistia (Palestine).

The territories occupied by the nations/tribes named in Psalm 83 are roughly as follows:

1. Edom – in modern Jordan
2. Ishmaelites – in modern Saudi Arabia
3. Moab – in modern Jordan
4. Hagrites – the territory bordering modern Jordan and Saudi Arabia
5. Gebal – probably modern Golan Heights and nearby in Syria
6. Ammon – in modern Jordan
7. Amalek – in modern Sinai peninsula and the Negev
8. Philistia – modern Gaza Strip, part of the Palestinian authority
9. Tyre – in modern Lebanon
10. Assyria – modern Syria and Iraq

The important thing to notice, I think, is that the Psalmist here lists a group of nations/tribes which immediately surround Israel on all sides. The nations of Ezekiel 38, on the other hand, are a great distance from Israel, although they too are found in all directions. While the “Gog and Magog” of Revelation 20:8 is probably a prophecy about a different event, John picks up the point from Ezekiel that this confederacy comes from “the four corners of the earth”. There is no correspondence or overlapping between the nations of Psalm 83 and Ezekiel 38.

What I see by comparing the main prophecies of the final conflict is this sequence:

  1. An invasion of Israel by her immediate neighbours (Psalm 83; Zechariah 14; Ezekiel 35; Joel 3) - an ‘inner circle of nations’
  2. Jerusalem is taken captive (Zechariah 14 and Ezekiel 35)
  3. The Lord returns and delivers Jerusalem, and rescues Israel from its surrounding enemies, and establishes His Kingdom.
  4. Israel dwells in peace, “safely” and “without walls or gates” (Ezek 38:8,11).
  5. An invasion of Israel by an ‘outer circle of nations’ - “from the four corners of the earth” (Ezekiel 38)
  6. The outer circle of invaders is defeated.
  7. The Kingdom expands peacefully (Psalm 72).

It’s significant that both the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ circles of nations described above are all Islamic nations.

It’s also interesting that the only list of 10 confederate nations or tribes anywhere in Scripture is in Psalm 83. These may be the ‘10 toes’ of the image in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, or the ten heads or ten horns mentioned elsewhere, but I wouldn’t push the point.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Listening prayer

There has recently been some discussion on the Truth Alive forum about listening in prayer for the voice of God. I think I may have touched on this earlier on this blog, perhaps under the "Intimacy with God" thread. It's something I'm often asked about, and I frequently have Christadelphians ask me for suggestions on how to listen for the voice of God.

I recently came across a helpful model for "listening prayer" based on the Lord's prayer, in Kingdom Ethics by Glen Stassen and David Gushee (Intervarsity Press 2003). The Lord's Prayer has a sevenfold structure, so it lends itself to being used in this way - taking one section each day for a week.

Here are some extracts from this book which may be helpful.

Sunday (or day 1):

Hallowed be your name.

Ask God to give you an idea concerning how God's name could be hallowed in your day - through what you are inspired to do, or what you pray someone else might do; for a small, thoughtful initiative that you could take.

Monday (or day 2):

Your kingdom come.

Consider how God's kingdom (understood as the reign of God) might come in your own life in the next 24 hours, and how your own behaviour might be out of step with the reign of God

Tuesday (or day 3):

Your will be done.

Ask for God's guidance for how you might be able to do God's will in a way you might not have thought of, or would not have been empowered to try, if you had not listened in God's presence.

Wednesday (or day 4):

Give us today enough bread for the coming day.

As well as our own needs, this prayer demands our attention to the needs of those around us. In listening prayer open your mind so God might give you a vision of human need that you could help meet during the next 24 hours.

Thursday (or day 5):

Forgive us our debts (as we forgive our debtors).

Ask to be made aware of a part of your life where you could use some forgiveness, and of another person in your relationships who could use some forgiveness from you. or from someone else whom you could help do some forgiving. Ask for God to give you a word of forgiveness that you can take to heart, or that you can speak to someone else.

Friday (or day 6):

Do not bring us into a time of trial/temptation.

Confess to God some temptation in your life, admit you cannot solve it yourself, and ask for God to make you aware of how the vicious cycle works and how you can be delivered. Or you can pray for someone else's empowerment to avoid temptation, or for a supporting word to come to you to mention to that other person.

Saturday (or day 7):

Deliver us from the evil one.

Ask that you be made aware of God's delivering action in your life or the life of someone else, and how you can participate in God's dynamic presence to deliver.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

A path for healing

I read with interest this morning that actor-director Mel Gibson has issued an apology to Jews for anti-Semitic remarks made to an officer who arrested him for suspicion of drunk driving.

In his apology, Mr Gibson said his actions Saturday went against his Roman Catholic beliefs.

"The tenets of what I profess to believe necessitate that I exercise charity and tolerance as a way of life," he said. "Every human being is God's child, and if I wish to honor my God I have to honor his children. But please know from my heart that I am not an anti-Semite. I am not a bigot. Hatred of any kind goes against my faith."

Of further interest to me was the comment that Mr Gibson said he wants to meet with Jewish leaders to make amends.

"I'm not just asking for forgiveness," he said. "I would like to take it one step further, and meet with leaders in the Jewish community, with whom I can have a one-on-one discussion to discern the appropriate path for healing."

In his statement Mr Gibson referred to "the consequences hurtful words can have" and said:

"I am in the process of understanding where those vicious words came from during that drunken display, and I am asking the Jewish community, whom I have personally offended, to help me on my journey through recovery. Again, I am reaching out to the Jewish community for its help. I know there will be many in that community who will want nothing to do with me, and that would be understandable. But I pray that that door is not forever closed."

I don't want to comment on MR Gibson's Catholic beliefs or the incident which led to his outburst. However, I personally think it is very commendable that he decided to not simply issue an apology, but to take it a step further in trying to understand why he came out with "those vicious words" in the first place and to seek healing, both within himself and with the people he has offended.

Personally I feel there is a good example and a lesson there for us. If we offend someone it's often not good enough to simply apologise. We also need to follow the path for healing.

Friday, August 04, 2006

I will build my church (7) - orthodoxy and orthopraxy

July was a particularly busy month for me and I didn't get to post anything on my blog at all. However, I'm in the process of going through a career change and this is currently enabling me to have some more free time and I'm hoping to be able to write more frequently in the future.

To fully know Jesus, and to know what Christianity is really about, involves active participation in community life and through developing relationships with other people, and not simply by learning propositional truths or facts about Christianity (even if we affirm there are propositional truths about Christianity). Christianity is not an idea - it's a way of life.

Jesus said "by this shall men know that you are my disciples, that you love one another" (John 13:35). He didn't say "the most convincing evidence of Christianity is fulfilled prophecy" or "people will know you are my disciples if you teach all the first principles simply yet thoroughly". What He said was, the only way to show people that you my disciples is to show them. We are called to live His teachings - to love one another.

Our best apologetic (and also our worst!), is our behaviour. Our behaviour towards each other can either attract people to the teachings of Jesus, or repel them. Bad behaviour can not only turn people away from the church, but also from the teachings which the church is supposed to put into practice. There are many people in the world who won't ever open a Bible because they look at Christians and don't like what they see.

I was interested to see that I was recently quoted in Anthony Buzzard's "Focus on the Kingdom" magazine (June 2006):

“Practical teaching without sound theology is as impoverished as sound theology without practical teaching. The New Testament doesn’t make the distinction between orthodoxy [correct doctrine] and orthopraxy [good practice] that we often do, nor is there any hint in the Scriptures, as far as I can see, that God will forgive bad behavior more readily than poor theology, or vice versa. We need to teach them both and teach them well.”